Heidi Kumao is an interdisciplinary artist who creates photographs, video, machine art, and installations to explore ordinary social interactions and their psychological undercurrents. Emerging from the intersection of sculpture, theater and engineering, her “performative technologies” generate artistic spectacle in order to visualize the unseen: power structures, emotions, compulsions, thinking patterns, and dreams. Kumao has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Creative Capital Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, AAUW (American Assn. of University Women), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally, has been reviewed in publications such as Artforum, ArtPapers, and Sculpture Magazine, and her work is in a number of private and public collections including The Exploratorium, Houston Museum of Fine Arts and Light Work.
Post-traumatic shadow plays? Screening rooms for troubled dreams? Heidi Kumao isn’t sure what to call Timed Release, her meditation on the ways in which our humanity insinuates itself through cracks in the walls, literal or figurative, that confine us.
It shares some DNA, Kumao suggests,with Shirin Neshat’s split-screen “film experiences” and Krzysztof Wodiczko’s projections on buildings. And, of course, it borrows some of its tropes from the stage, not to mention the movies and the museum vitrine. Asked for points of reference, the artist cites David Wilson’s metacommentary on museum display in his Museum of Jurassic Technology, and the theatricality of works by Louise Bourgeois, Rebecca Horn, and Janine Antoni.
None of which is much help when we’re alone with Timed Release. Immersed in its son et lumière worlds, we think of shadow plays, naturally, since the actors in her videos appear in silhouette. But we’re also reminded of Victorian stage magic, Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, jittery educational movies from Cold War classrooms, maybe even of Plato’s cave and Baudrillard’s postmodern hall of mirrors.
Each of the four video installations in the series utilizes simple but effective cinematic trickery: a video projector casts one of Kumao’s short films onto an object and the wall behind it. The object is a talisman, charged with narrative associations. Elements in the film have been tailored to fit the object precisely; as a result, it’s absorbed into the onscreen world even as it causes that 2-D reality to bulge into three dimensions, extruding cinematic illusion into the gallery space. Brooding music and jarringly live sound effects thicken the emotional atmosphere.
Timed Release comprises Correspondence (2008), Transplant (2009), Tether (2010), and Trace (2010). Correspondence evokes the waking nightmare lived by Terry Anderson and Nelson Mandela during their years in captivity. The two men were sustained, respectively, by secret diaries and public letters. Transplant tells the story of Japanese- Americans who, during World War II, were relocated to concentration camps such as Manzanar in the California desert. Despite the blast-furnace heat and never-ending gusts of grit, internees conjured Japanese gardens out of the wastelands. In a bell jar hangs a scrap of paper whose shape is a visual echo of the ID tags issued to Americans of Japanese ancestry. Projected images cause the iconic tag to morph into a specific individual’s ID tag, a strut supporting a guard tower, an American flag, a bean sprout.
Tether descends into the hope-crushing depths of locked-in syndrome, the terrifying catatonia that robbed stroke victim Jean-Dominique Bauby of everything but the ability to blink one eye. An enormous eye (again, projected on the signature bell jar) blinks, as Bauby did to pick out letters in the alphabet. Bauby’s book The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, an exuberant crescendo of joie de vivre, was the result of his efforts.
Trace chronicles Frederick Douglass’s surreptitious struggle to jimmy slavery’s bars on his imagination by learning to read and write. Of the four works, Transplant strikes closest to home: having grown up “half-Japanese” in California, Kumao saw, firsthand, how her Japanese-born father experienced the United States “as an ‘outsider,’ a target of the hostility directed toward anyone of Japanese descent during and after WWII.”
The seeds of the piece were sown by Kumao’s discovery of Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens during Wartime, Kenneth Helphand’s book about gardens created by soldiers amid the trench warfare of WWI, gardens struggling for life in the Nazi-occupied Jewish ghettoes of WWII, gardens springing up in Japanese-American internment camps such as Manzanar. “It is amazing to me,” she says, “how the simple act of growing something provides hope and sustains people (despite horrendous conditions that would seem to make growing a garden an impossibility).”
Kumao was fascinated by Dorothea Lange’s photos of the camp, especially a picture of “an American flag waving in the wind and two children running through a sandstorm. Apparently the sand got in their hair, their clothes, their skin.” As in the other works in Timed Release, it was important to Kumao that Transplant leave “a hopeful or subversive note” reverberating in the viewer’s mind, despite the inescapable grimness of its subject. Near the end, a woman sweeps the desert floor, an exercise in absurdism worthy of a character in a Beckett play. “As she sweeps, however, her broom erases the shadow of the guard tower,” Kumao points out, “a gesture that demonstrates the strength of the internees and shows them in control of their environment. In the beginning of the piece, a hand broom erases the Japanese family portrait; the final scene shows an internee removing the signs of imprisonment.”
She quotes from Defiant Gardens: “For many internees, a ‘certain attitude of acceptance and resignation, of Shakata ga nai —“it cannot be helped”— was coupled with the trait of Gaman —“perseverance and fortitude.”’”
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and essayist. He is the author, most recently, of the essay collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams (U. of Minnesota Press). He is at work on a biography of the artist, writer, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.
Heidi Kumao lives in Ann Arbor, MI, and completed her residency at Light Work in August 2012. www.heidikumao.net